While the interest in pre-code (June 1934) American talkies may never have been greater than currently, it should not be assumed that the films are good simply because they deal with subjects which became off limits after the code was upheld. This package is a case in point. We have 6 entries from Paramount Studios and they vary from very good to very bad. Let's start with the bad.
"Search for Beauty", released in 1934, is a terrible film. The pre-code elements are some nudity and a screenplay based on exploitation using sex as the bait. This would be of interest if the context in which they were presented had any merit but this must be one of the worst films ever. The garrulous screenplay concerns the sex-ploitation of athletic specimens, fronts for the get rich schemes of a trio of ex-cons. A teenage Ida Lupino, looking like a kewpie doll, and Buster Crabbe, an Olympic swimmer, star as the dupes, first via a health magazine and subsequently a health farm. The screenplay is dreadful, the production values ordinary, the editing poor and the cynicism behind the plot mind blowing. The film promoted a real life "Search for Beauty" and Ann Sheridan, who made her debut in this film and can be glimpsed as the winner from Texas, confirmed later in interviews that the whole thing was as appalling as it seems on the screen.
"Merrily We Go To Hell", released in 1932, is a marital drama whereby alcoholic writer Fredric March marries heiress Sylvia Sidney. When she is unable to reform him, she joins him in his extra curricular activities until she finds she is pregnant. It is a weak film with too much exposition. While the stars do a good job, the director, Dorothy Arzner, tries for unsubtle camera tricks which are corny. Sidney was a powerful emotional actress but the material undermines her good performance.
Tallulah Bankhead, a stage star probably most famous for her colourful personal life, stars in the earliest film in the set, a melodrama released in 1931 called "The Cheat". The film has a hoary and predictable plot whereby Bankhead, as a spoilt and careless wife incurs gambling debts, imbezzles the milk fund then shoots Irving Pichel when he tries "to have his way with her", with a kinky twist. The film is stagebound as directed by George Abbott and Bankhead poses and wrings her hands as for the stage. The pre-code aspect of the film is the oriental mischief that Pichel creates. This probably makes the film more interesting today than it was in 1931, particularly as it was a remake of an earlier silent film. Of all the films, this is the one which is the most old fashioned in plot, acting and direction.
"Murder at the Vanities", released in 1934, is a dumb backstage whodunnit set around the famous shows of Earl Carroll, a rival to producers Ziegfield and George White of musical reviews on Broadway. The film is boring with a dull plot and the notable absence of the zing of the equivalent Warner Brother's offerings. Mitchell Liesen directed the film so not surprisingly, the art direction is excellent. The pre-code aspects relate in particular to the near nude costuming in the musical numbers, which include a bizarre song about the use of marijuana. Elsewhere, there are a few pleasant songs including "Cocktails for Two" but Kitty Carlisle and Frederick Brisson are not dynamic performers although he tries hard, grinning at every opportunity but coming over as pure ham.
A star whose work is rarely seen is the delightful Nancy Carroll, a pert girl who bridged the coming of sound but whose career was thrown away when Paramount consistently handed her crummy roles and did not renew her contract in 1933, reportedly due to her temperament for complaining about the poor parts. "Hot Saturday", a 1932 release, is ample proof that a major talent was trashed. The film is the beguiling tale of a small town girl who loses her job and reputation for supposedly staying too long alone at the home of playboy Cary Grant. The film is beautifully directed by William Seiter and all the actors give good performances particularly Jane Darwell, cast unusually as a harridan wife. The pre-code aspects of the script are the implications of the behaviour of "wild youth" and pre-marital sex. It is a neat film. By the way, that's Nancy Carroll on the cover of the box in a provocative scene with Randolph Scott.
In 1933, Paramount starred the enchanting Claudette Colbert in "Torch Singer". Colbert was steadily moving to the top of the heap at this time and the film is a stunning showcase. She plays an unwed mother who becomes a notorious night club singer after giving up her child. By accident, she also becomes "Aunt Jenny", a radio personality hosting a maudlin children's program and thereby finds her child and the father for a happy ending. If the plot sounds improbable, that does not account for the breadth and depth of Colbert's performance. She runs the gamut from despair to happiness and never once strikes a false note. There is some brittle humour too. The supporting cast are outstanding, performers such as Charles Grapewin as the radio sponsor with a wonderful scene when he tells off his wife, Ricardo Cortez as the nightclub promoter and David Manners as the boyfriend who left her pregnant. Also Colbert is superbly dressed by Travis Banton, her favourite designer and what a figure she had. Wow! If this is not enough, then you will be blown away by Colbert's singing. Using her own mezzo and her superior acting abilities, she sells all the songs magnificently. This is a quality film in every way.
The prints of the films are very good, in the case of "Hot Saturday", like new. The only extras are a short documentary about the introduction of the code and a small pocket copy of the code itself. The documentary consists of a lot of talk from regular contributors to commentaries on classic films and a few tantalising glimpses from some of the films. Naturally, the dissertation looks at the Paramount legacy and focuses on De Mille's "Sign of the Cross" which particularly offended the Catholics due to its religious subject. The documentary is concise but pales compared to the equivalent documentary on The Forbidden Hollywood Volume 2 Collection.
The release of these films is welcome to enthusiasts primarily because of their rarity. This does not mean, however, that they are good.